‘The Dresser’: A Treat From Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen

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Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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A lovely television adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play about an aging stage actor and the people whose lives he’s brightened and blighted, The Dresser is a treat from its stars, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen, premiering Monday on Starz.

Set in World War II England, The Dresser gives us Hopkins as a veteran actor referred to only as “Sir.” His dresser — the assistant who helps him prepare his makeup and costume — is McKellen’s Norman, whose subservient position is, we quickly realize, an essential one. It is Norman who must keep up Sir’s spirits, cajole his cranky star into a decent mood, puff up Sir’s ego, and — again and again—feed him Shakespeare when Sir bellows, over and over, “What’s my first line?”

The play Sir is starring in is King Lear, and Sir must perform it in the midst of air raid warnings of German bombings. Sir’s wife, known here only as Her Ladyship, is herself an actor, playing the role of Cordelia — she’s played by Emily Watson. Her Ladyship punctures Sir’s ego as assiduously as Norman pumps it up, telling her husband, “You’re a third rate actor-manager in a tatty tour of the provinces, not some Colossus bestriding the narrow world.”

The line is meant to put him in his place, but the drama of The Dresser is that Sir is, or once was, a very good actor indeed — perhaps a great one — who’s never achieved the esteem and fame he’s desired all his life. Now a roaring big fish in a quiet little pond, he bulls his way through life with rage and self-pity, even as he fears he’s losing his mind. In this, it is all too obvious, Sir resembles the Shakespeare character he’s playing, and that’s the chief flaw in Harwood’s play — a too-easy irony.

But Harwood makes up for it with the crackling dialogue that pushes The Dresser along at a terrific pace. Hopkins is excellent as a man full of bluster and terror. McKellen is every bit as good in giving us a Norman whose tender care cannot hide his resentments, his own crushed artistic ambitions, his thwarted love life, and a general misery that finds him swigging from a liquor bottle whenever he’s not putting on a forced smile and a jolly tone of voice to wheel his master onstage for yet another performance. In lesser hands, these characters — who also include Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire as the stage manager — would be depressing figures. But the crisp bite of Harwood’s lines (goosed here and there by snippets of Shakespeare) and the vigorous enthusiasm of Hopkins and McKellen give The Dresser an engaging passion.

The Dresser airs on Monday at 9 p.m. on Starz.